Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the third episode of “The Last of Us,” which aired January 29 on HBO.
If the hype surrounding “The Last of Us” felt at all excessive in the first two episodes, the third chapter of the HBO series lives up to the weight of all the hype, claiming early what will almost inevitably discussed as one of the best hours of television in 2023.
Folding a self-contained story into the larger canvas of this dystopian, zombie-ridden world, the show unearths a tale of love and tenderness amid chaos and violence, while making excessive use of the haunting ballad of Linda Ronstadt “Long, Long Time” just to punctuate things.
Feeling almost like an episode in an anthology series – think “Tales of the Last of Us” – the centerpiece revolved around Bill (Nick Offerman), a surly doomsday prepper, who reluctantly welcomes weary traveler Frank (“The White Lotus’” Murray Bartlett, who somehow seems to be everywhere these days).
After they share a meal, Frank plays Bill’s piano, kisses him, and ends up staying, well, for the rest of their lives. It culminates with Frank falling ill, choosing to kill himself after one last lavish dinner, and Bill deciding to join him in saying goodbye to this cruel world.
“I’m satisfied. And you were my focus,” Bill tells Frank, who responds by saying, “I don’t support that. … But from an objective standpoint, it’s incredibly romantic.”
It was, and the strains of Ronstadt’s vocals should spark renewed interest in her 1970 hit faster than you can say “Running Up That Hill,” the 1985 Kate Bush hit that went viral. an unexpected resurgence thanks to “Stranger Things”. (HBO, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
The real emotional shock came at the end, when Joel (Pedro Pascal), who had known the couple, and his traveling companion Ellie (Bella Ramsey) find Bill’s suicide note, in which he talks about “saving” Frank and how her love for him changed her morbid and cynical outlook.
“Before, I hated the world and was happy when everyone died,” he wrote. “But I was wrong.”
The final shot, through the window where they lay together, was the near perfect of an almost perfect hour of television.
Thanks to its association with the award-winning game, “The Last of Us” was burdened with the kind of expectations that almost inevitably led to disappointment or once the media machinery got carried away, backlash. Still, the show rose to that challenge, and while the third episode is probably the best of the nine, it has company that at least comes close before the season ends.
Joel and Ellie are about to face new dangers, and the story will continue with the obvious announcement that HBO has renewed it for a second season. Whether on its own or in this larger context, a series-defining episode like this is worth savoring for now, and perhaps for a long, long time.